Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Legion's 98th Annual Convention at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio on Aug. 31, 2016.
Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

The debate over ‘American exceptionalism’ is turned on its head

Of all the odd lines of attack conservatives have launched against President Obama, one of the strangest has been whining about “American exceptionalism.” This year, the entire dynamic has been flipped on its head in ways that would have been hard to predict a few years ago.
 
When the right has gone after Obama over “exceptionalism,” the idea has been to question his patriotism and love of country by questioning his perceptions of the United States’ unique greatness. Four years ago, for example, Mitt Romney’s stump speech insisted that while he and Republicans saw America as a place of special and historical excellence, the president believes “America’s just another nation with a flag.”
 
The conservative complaints have never really made any sense, but this line has nevertheless been a staple of Republican rhetoric for nearly eight years. It’s become a litmus-test issue of sorts: genuine U.S. patriotism, the argument goes, requires a belief in “American exceptionalism.”
 
That is, until this year, when the right lost control of the debate.
Hillary Clinton offered a vigorous case on Wednesday for America’s place as a singular and vital leader in the world, drawing a sharp contrast with the “America first” approach espoused by Donald J. Trump.
 
“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this: The United States is an exceptional nation,” Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, said in an address to the American Legion’s national convention.
In her address, Mrs. Clinton championed the notion of American exceptionalism, a term that has traditionally been embraced by Republicans.
 
It’s hard to overstate just how eager Clinton was today to drive the point home. When her campaign distributed a transcript of her speech to reporters this afternoon, the headline read, “In Cincinnati, Clinton Touts American Exceptionalism.” A quick review of the transcript found that the Democratic presidential hopeful used the word “exceptional” eight times while speaking to the American Legion.
 
This was arguably the most striking: “[M]y opponent in the race has said very clearly that he thinks American exceptionalism is insulting to the rest of the world. In fact, when Vladimir Putin, of all people, criticized American exceptionalism, my opponent agreed with him saying, and I quote, ‘If you are in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.’ Well maybe you don’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
 
If you closed your eyes, forgot recent history, and bought into overly convenient political clichés, you might think someone on the far-left would avoid using “American exceptionalism” out of sensitivity for foreign audiences, while a conservative defended the principle as the truth.
 
Except this year, it’s the Republican who’s decided to reject “American exceptionalism” on theoretical and rhetorical grounds.
 
The Washington Post added today, “Trump, in fact, has said at multiple points in recent years that he doesn’t much like the idea of American exceptionalism. And he has explained this position in detail.”
 
For more along these lines, there’s been plenty of coverage in recent months of Trump’s explicit rejection of the principle Republicans used to hold dear.
 
As for the Republican politicians and pundits who were outraged by their perception of President Obama distancing himself from this principle, now that the GOP nominee has rejected it outright, they seem to have lost interest in the subject. Imagine that.
 
 
 

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

The debate over 'American exceptionalism' is turned on its head